BUDAPEST — Voters in Budapest and other Hungarian cities handed a stinging defeat on Sunday to the country’s populist leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and his political machine, sending a wave of opposition candidates to victory in local elections.
Overcoming the governing party’s nearly complete domination of the news media and the state, opposition candidates won control in 10 of Hungary’s 23 larger cities, including the capital, Budapest, compared with three in municipal elections five years ago. They also put another dent in what had seemed a few years ago to be the inexorable march in parts of Europe toward Mr. Orban’s “illiberal” and harshly anti-immigrant politics.
Divided and floundering after nine years under Mr. Orban, the opposition candidates had for years struggled to compete in local, national and European Parliament elections. They were not helped by new election laws that favored the governing Fidesz party.
That changed on Sunday in a vote dominated by competing sex tapes, corruption accusations and doomsday threats of migrants. In a departure from past practices, independent candidates and the leading opposition parties agreed to unite behind one candidate in most towns and cities, successfully fighting the divide-and-conquer tactics of Fidesz.
“This cooperation created the opportunity to pose a real challenge to Fidesz,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, the director of Policy Solutions, a think tank in Budapest.
It enabled opposition candidates to prevail despite a dearth of resources and in the face of relentless attacks from Hungary’s pro-government media ecosystem.
In Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, 44, the united opposition’s environmentalist candidate, defeated Istvan Tarlos, the governing party’s incumbent, by a margin of nearly six percentage points. And the gains filtered down to lower levels, with opposition candidates winning mayoralties and councils in 14 of Budapest’s 23 districts.
There were also significant wins in the provinces, where Fidesz was thought to be more entrenched.
“This isn’t a small feat at all,” says Robert Laszlo, an election expert with Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank and consultancy. “It means the opposition can start building again. It has taken back the bastions that will give it the resources to build up a national network.”
And while the strategy of cooperation paid dividends, the opposition also received assistance from an unlikely source: a prominent politician in Hungary’s governing party, which claims to be a bulwark of Christian civilization and family values.
A series of video clips released online by an anonymous source a week before the election showed Zsolt Borkai, a city mayor and former Olympic champion, participating in an orgy on a yacht.
An opposition lawmaker and anticorruption campaigner, Akos Hadhazy, also produced evidence that Mr. Borkai’s wife, a schoolteacher, owned a luxury property with a horse stable and tennis court. And it was reported that Mr. Borkai’s son was on the payroll of a company owned by another man who took part in the orgy.
The stories, as well as another sex tape involving an opposition candidate, dominated headlines in the days leading up to the election, loosening the governing party’s grip on its messaging.
Emboldened by their electoral successes, opposition leaders predicted more difficult times ahead for Mr. Orban.
“The change of the Orban system has started,” said Andras Fekete-Gyor, the president of the liberal Momentum party, adding that Fidesz must now be worried about public perceptions of widespread public corruption.
But independent analysts dismissed such proclamations as premature.
“Based on what they’ve done since 2010, I don’t count on a more moderate or appeasing tone from Fidesz,” Bulcsu Hunyadi of Budapest’s Political Capital Institute, told The Associated Press. “They usually keep moving forward and become even tougher.”
Mr. Orban acknowledged his party’s loss of the capital late Sunday, and expressed his government’s willingness to cooperate with capital’s new leadership.
Across town, Mr. Karacsony, Budapest’s mayor-elect, said this victory was about bringing the Hungarian capital into the 21st century.
“Holding it up to where it has always been pulled by history,” he said, “we will take it back into Europe.”
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